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NCAA, and member schools, need to get proactive about disaster response

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Hurricane Harvey devastated parts of the Gulf Coast. NCAA institutions have marshaled charitable response, but bureaucracy intervenes.

Houston Area Begins Slow Recovery From Catastrophic Harvey Storm Damage Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

On August 26th, Hurricane Harvey stalled over the Houston metropolitan area and dumped record rainfall. You’re probably familiar with some of the numbers by now. A partial butcher’s bill follows:

Maybe you’ve heard some of the grim stories that emerged from the storm. The family washed away by rising floodwaters in Greens Bayou. The toddler found clinging to her dead mother near Beaumont. Tornadoes ripping off roofs and a mother protecting a child who requires breathing tanks. There are many others.

Less dramatic, but no less devastating, are the property and economic losses Harvey inflicted. Many of my friends in Houston* had lives that looked a lot like my own before Harvey. They lived in Houston or one of its many suburbs, had kids and jobs, and a place to call home. After Harvey, some had to leave their homes, which will be total losses after invasive mold spawned by the floodwaters and southeast Texas humidity takes its toll.

*Full Disclosure: The author lived in Houston for three years, including 2008, when Hurricane Ike struck.

Some fled apartments or other dwellings to escape the rising floodwaters. They lost their home, their cars, and now have nothing but whatever they could carry. What can you carry? Some clothes, maybe your mobile phone, a few other things if you’re lucky.

The (High School) Coach

Aaron Proctor knows these kids, or is getting to know them. Proctor was a graduate assistant on Bruce Weber’s staff at Kansas State for two seasons. This summer, he left to take the job as boys basketball coach at North Forest High School in his native Houston.

His kids were supposed to return to school on August 28th. They didn’t actually make it back until September 11th. Or that’s when school officially started. Saying they’re “back” is pushing it.

“All I can think about is school starting on Monday, and how people with no transportation and no income because of the storm are going to get their kids to and from school,” Proctor said. “I have players on my team who have lost everything they own, houses, cars, clothing, etc. Some of their parents have not been able to go back to work since Harvey.”

One player’s family lost both their cars and their home. They tried to get a hotel room, but there are five of them and the hotel told them they would have to book two rooms. Instead, they’re staying with relatives.

Others have been luckier, so Proctor isn’t always sure how the conversations will go. He called the mother of another player, expecting something like a normal conversation. She cut him off after about a minute to tell him their family had lost everything.

“The despair in her voice stopped me in my tracks,” Proctor said. “Again, another family of five staying with relatives who were affected by the hurricane as well.”

Proctor asked her about clothing sizes, but the mother would only give her children’s clothing sizes, not her and her husband’s. She just wants help for her kids.

The (College) Coach and His Challenge

Kelvin Sampson has been the head basketball coach at the University of Houston since 2014. On August 28th, he tweeted a request for fellow coaches to send unused shirts, shoes and any other gear to him as donations.

His coaching counterparts responded. Sampson received nearly 15,000 donations. There will undoubtedly be some kids in the Houston area walking around in donated shoes and other gear from North Carolina State, among many others.

The Problem

Catastrophic disasters present problems on a scale few of us can comprehend. Where do you start when 50 inches of rain fall in a few days? When tens of thousands of homes are flooded? When a metro area of six million people will have large swaths of land under water for months? When people who had little to begin with lose what little they had?

Problems like that aren’t fixed overnight. Or over a week, month or year. But like Bill Snyder says, you start where you are and get a little better every day. Little achievements add up over time.

Sampson and the University of Houston have almost 15,000 donations that will help those who have lost everything, or a lot of their things. But that’s too many items for one coaching staff to distribute. They need help distributing it. Unfortunately, time is in short supply for the families of North Forest and many other parts of Houston.

Enter NCAA bylaws. Even in these situations, complying with NCAA bylaws is a consideration for Houston and any other school.

John Infante, former Division I compliance officer, said a compliance officer may, in an abundance of caution, interpret Bylaw 13.15 as requiring an NCAA waiver to distribute the items donated to Houston.

“I don’t think any coach is going to get in trouble unless they donate directly to high schools or club teams without first getting a waiver,” Infante said.

It appears Houston requested a waiver of some sort. As of late last week, Houston said it was awaiting an NCAA decision on a requested waiver. For its part, the NCAA said it told the Cougars it could distribute the donations as it saw fit.

The Pachyderm

You may have noticed the elephant in the room.

Kelvin Sampson has a history with the NCAA. He was sanctioned for more than 500 impermissible phone calls made by his staff at Oklahoma. In 2008, Sampson received a five-year show-cause order for similar violations that occurred at Indiana.

Houston hired Sampson after his show-cause order expired. As of now, Sampson is not under any NCAA sanctions. But beyond Sampson’s own history, he hired Bilal Batley, who has his own history with the NCAA. Moves like that will invite scrutiny.

The Scapegoat

The NCAA is a convenient punching bag. It’s a nameless, faceless, distant bureaucracy. Kind of like all those Congressional representatives you claim to hate but keep sending back to Washington every few years. Arguably, the member institutions want the NCAA as a convenient scapegoat so they look better by comparison.

Maybe that’s the case, but in a situation like this, it’s shameful buck-passing. Instead of doing what’s right for people in their community desperately in need, they throw up their hands and say “we’ve done what we can, but we have to wait on the big bad NCAA to let us help out.” Every just-doing-my-job bureaucrat nods in appreciation.

For better or worse, sports teams and personalities are as good or better than anyone at marshaling charitable forces in 2017 America. A basketball coach at a program that hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2010 got other coaches and organizations to make nearly 15,000 donations. Houston Texans’ defensive lineman JJ Watt has raised more than $30 million for storm relief.

So can we please move on from our goddamn social-media obsession and understand there are issues in this world – many issues, actually – bigger than a beating at the hands of the dumb herd of the Twitter mob? Gary Parrish is apparently preoccupied with the NCAA getting into a social-media firestorm and taking a PR pummeling.

I’m more preoccupied with families in Houston who had their lives taken from them by an act of God and could use a little help. So maybe the NCAA could fix both problems by issuing blanket waivers for distributing donated goods after natural disasters. They may want to consider this, given that a slew of Florida schools may face the same issue in the wake of Hurricane Irma.

But maybe all that North Carolina State-branded merchandise will give Houston a competitive advantage. I don’t even have a punchline for that; in this case, reality’s absurdity suffices.

Please consider donating to the victims of Hurricane Harvey along the Gulf Coast. The University of Houston has a page with donation information. Aaron Proctor and others are working with For A Great Cause to raise money and distribute relief.